As a franchise, Love Live! encourages people to be unique and do what they love despite self doubts. That said, I found its third incarnation, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club to be the first to really shake things up for the franchise. It emphasizes not just uniqueness but also individuality. Its anime utilizes a different art style from the rest. And it’s the first to challenge what it means to be a school idol. Season 2 of the anime brings more of that welcome divergence from the standard, most notably in a message that encourages people to not box themselves in. It’s as if Love Live! Nijigasaki is saying, “In life, there’s no such thing as ‘minor characters.’”
At the end of the first season, Nijigasaki High’s School Idol Club successfully pulled off the School Idol Festival, bringing fun and inspiration to all attendees. Now with newfound fame, the girls want to do even more as school idols. However, a couple new arrivals at Nijigasaki High are looking to shake things up: Zhong Lanzhu from Hong Kong, whose confidence lives up to her immense talent, and Mia Taylor from New York, a young prodigy and professional songwriter. Lanzhu finds the School Idol Club’s desire to treat the fans as equals to be a mistake, and believes that school idols should be about demonstrating to fans that the performers are a level above. Her defiant attitude leads to exploration of unfamiliar territory among the members, each of whom approach the challenge differently. Perhaps the most affected of all is Takasaki Yu, the only member of the club who’s not a school idol, and who has taken up piano as a way to help the other girls and to find herself.
One of the things I greatly enjoy about Season 2 is its celebration of lesser spotlights. To start with, three of the girls (Shizuku, Emma, and Kanata) began as generic “normal-rarity” characters in the first mobile game before being “promoted” to full-on franchise reps, but it doesn’t end there. Throughout the series, they meet and talk with school idols from other schools in the Odaiba area, and all of them are actually other “N girls”—the peers of Shizuku, Emma, and Kanata before Love Live! Nijigasaki came into being. Given life through voice and animation, they go from throwaway characters in a mobile game to people with lives and ambitions of their own.
Takasaki Yu also falls into this idea of elevating characters beyond what they’re “supposed” to be. An unusual presence in Love Live!, Yu is actually based on the player character from the second mobile game, Love Live! School Idol Festival All Stars. There, she has neither a default name or a character design—both came as a result of the Love Live! Nijigasaki anime. In Season 1, she more or less fills this role of audience insert/support, but Season 2 makes a concerted effort to flesh out Yu by giving her struggles and conflicts all her own. Together, both Yu and the N girls bring about this sense that everyone has their own journey.
The Nijigasaki Idol Club’s school idols do have the biggest spotlight, but even their stories end up being about taking the path that brings you joy, and to hell with sticking with what “suits you best.” This philosophy comes into play with Lanzhu, Mia, and especially a third new girl named Mifune Shioriko, but it also echoes across the club—and the anime—as a whole. Notably, whereas the other Love Live! anime make getting into and competing in the titular Love Live! national school idol tournament, it’s more of a background element here. The many performances throughout the season end up acting as culminations of personal and interpersonal growth, rather than a showcasing of talent and showmanship progress as idols.
Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club Season 2 places greater attention paid to what would otherwise be less prominent characters. It also introduces new characters as a way to challenge notions of what a school idol is supposed to be like. Then, it looks at the expected goal of school idols, and turns that on its head too. Over and over, this anime expresses how there is no one-size-fits-all approach to passion, and that passion need not be precluded by having the accepted forms of talent. Because of all these qualities, I find Nijigasaki to be perhaps the most encouraging Love Live! of all. Plenty of fiction talks about the importance of being yourself, but this feels special nevertheless. That message is expressed with a powerful sense of grace and caring that leaves a lasting impression.